Cosmotalk: Imagination Movers

What do you get when you mix the Beastie Boys’ sound with Monkees-style comedy, blue mechanic’s jumpsuits and a friendly neighborhood vibe a la Mister Rogers?

Every dad’s man crush, that’s what.

More specifically, the kid-tested, mom-approved Imagination Movers.

Made up of dads Rich Collins, Dave Poche, Scott Durbin and firefighter Smitty Smith, the self-proclaimed alternative rock band for the preschool set (their devotees are affectionately known as Gearheads) has taken the mini music scene by storm with Emmy award-winning songs about everything from messy rooms to saying please and thank you, all performed loud and proud on a one-of-a-kind trashcan drum set.

I had the honor to go head to Gearhead with the dynamic group in early 2008 to talk about their launch into the solar system of stardom with what was then a brand new Disney Channel television show (also called Imagination Movers) and their personal adventures in parenting.

And, they must have liked what I said, since a year later I was granted a follow up interview to launch Cosmotot’s Green Room interview series, and to get the scoop on their 40-city tour (including Waukegan), “Happy Ha-Ha-Holidays” premiere coming up December 5 at 10 a.m. ET/PT on Playhouse Disney, and the family traditions (shrimp and grits for breakfast) that really get them in the spirit of the season.

What was the inspiration behind the holiday show where Santa loses his signature laugh?

It was really a collaboration of us brainstorming with the writers. Without giving too much away, it’s not the same old Christmas story and Santa is a really human character.

So little kids will really be able to realate to Santa. 

Yes, and we’re really proud of it being original. It’s tough to come up with new angles for Christmas. The fact that Santa comes to the Idea Warehouse fits in with whole second season of the show where we have a lot of very archetypical characters from Santa to the Tooth Fairy to Cinderella come through the door. It’s one of the coolest things we’ve done.

Do you have any special family holiday traditions?

For Thanksgiving, the Smith family usually does something outdoorsy like a fishing trip and then has a big feast where everybody gathers around like a little family reunion. We just hang out and do the stuff-yourself-take-a-nap situation. For Christmas it’s very much the same thing. It’s getting together with family. Chillin out. Maybe doing something outdoors and having some time to actually hang out with the people you don’t see on a regular basis. A lot of food in New Orleans, too.

Rich has five little ones under 10, and does all the usual rituals with the tree and the gifts and of course hoping Santa comes. This year, we’re taking the family and driving halfway to D.C., to meet my family at a rented house on a lake in the Smoky Mountains. It’s an eight hour drive for each group of people – everyone will be in this one big house and essentially, have one big feast. Four days of food.

How do you stay connected with your kids, wives and families when on tour?

Postcards is about as old fashioned as you can get, and Skype is about as advanced as it gets. Those are the best ways. Us Movers decided to send postcards home every day while on tour. We get almost every city. It’s a tradition, but yet being able to use Skype is a great way to do homework with the kids. It’s the closest thing to sitting in a room with someone. Dave was actually doing math homework with his son Dean the other day, and they were sitting there looking at his paper, doing the work, it was great.

As for the postcards, it’s not only old fashioned but there’s still nothing like getting a letter from a loved one in the mail. It’s just cool. It makes people feel good.

Among you, there’s an educator, architect, firefighter, and a journalist – all with a rock background. You’re like super heroes living dual lives. How did you decide to make such a drastic change from the serious working world to seriously rocking the music world together?

Well, to set the record straight, we didn’t know what the serious working world was like until we started this business. When you work for someone else’s company, you can punch out and go home, but we’re on duty 24/7, managing every aspect of our business, from making music to distribution to public relations. We’ve never worked so hard … but we’ve never had so much fun.

Was it any one person’s idea to sing songs for children?

The whole thing started in 2002, when Scott asked the rest of us if we’d like to brainstorm an idea for a music-fueled kids show. This was the pretext for me to assemble the home-recording studio I’d always wanted, and within a few weeks, we were off and running.

We sketched out the idea for the TV show and began to document our first song ideas. The key to the whole thing is that our friends and friends-of-friends immediately embraced the project and began to play our music and request copies for other people. We were inspired by this early positive reaction. From there, there was never a thought of turning back. I’d always wanted to use my creativity to entertain people and this whole venture was a lot more interesting than working for a big company (although my family sure missed the regular paycheck and health insurance).

How did your families react to the career change? Was there a lot of planning involved, or was it more a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-jumpsuits kind of thing?

The change was really pretty gradual, but we always had the support of friends and family.Early on, it was more like a hobby. We would meet to plan and write music and occasionally have a performance or two. Most of our meeting time was late in the evening. A couple of nights a week we would come home from work, do the general husband and father duties then once everyone was in bed we would gather to work on the Movers. Usually we would meet from about 9 p.m. to midnight or 1 a.m.

Soon the CDs were selling well and the booking requests were coming in regularly. At this point we were all starting to feel real pressure to make the jump. Our wives were meeting weekly to fill orders and book shows from the “office” in Scott’s spare room. The rest of us were taking vacation time, working hourly etc. to make room to fit everything in. The promise of the Movers was certainly there but with families to take care of we could not take the same leap that a single, childless, 20-year-old could. Rich was the only one able to make the leap into full time Mover-dom. Then came [Katrina] and all the rules changed. All of the roots that kept us from a true career change were gone. It went from being the second option to being one of the few things we could hold on to. It was shortly after the storm that we signed with Disney. Even then, there was some side work to make ends meet. When the TV show began production is when it became a viable full-time career for all of us. Actually, Smitty is still a firefighter with the City of New Orleans. He is taking a leave of absence while we are filming the TV show. Fire on the set? No problem.

That’s awesome! So obviously you’re all close friends in real life. How did you meet?

Ok…you might want to sit down. Scott and Smitty have known each other since they were kids and went to high school together. Dave’s wife, Michele, and Rich’s wife, Becky, have known each other since they were infants. Becky met Rich at Catholic University in D.C. and brought him back to New Orleans after graduation. Rich ended up being Smitty’s roommate through a mutual friend. Scott knew Becky and Michele, to a lesser degree, in high school. In fact, Scott took Becky to the Junior Prom. Dave was friends with Scott’s wife, Gretchen, from their days at LSU. And Dave first met Smitty’s wife, Mary, at a party while she was on a date with a mutual friend. So yes, we are all close friends in real life. There was so much cross-pollenation that we could not help but be close.

Whew! What a story! You’ve earned countless music awards, have been named the top pick for children’s prorgramming in numerous publications, and have been rising to the top non-stop ever since. Do you feel a little bit like Cinderfellas? After all, you do have kind of rags-to-riches, grassroots kind of story.

It is absolutely a Cinderfella story. Good thing we are so intelligent, talented and generally great or we might let it go to our heads (sarcasm, of course). Looking back at where things are now compared to five years ago, it is hard to believe. The good and bad have been extreme, luckily most of it has been good lately. It has been a crazy ride and there is more to come.

What keeps you grounded?

Being adults who had established careers, becoming husbands and fathers and had to deal with mortgages, car payments, etc. has worked to keep us grounded. We have been through enough to have pretty well established personalities and priorities. The storm also served up a good dose of perspective. You learn to appreciate the little things more and not get caught up in the superficial stuff.

Do your own children’s interests, fears, triumphs, and grade school-variety learning experiences inspire your songs?

Always. They are the reason we jumped into this wacky world we work in. It is amazing how things change once you have kids, as I am sure you are well aware. Almost all of our songs have been influenced in some way by a shared experience with our kids. Losing a tooth, being scared of the dark, taking medicine, etc. And, once the topics have been put to music, we have a built in audience who does not pull punches. We have a great little test market in our cars and minivans.

Just so you know, we are dads and husbands first and Movers second. As for our kids, they’ve always been our first test market and they were not afraid to give their two cents whenever we need to remember to see things through their eyes. We try to have them participate as much as possible too, from a shout out on a song to dancing on the DVD.

You’re all fun and games on TV – what are your parenting styles like?

Most of what you see on-screen is us just being us. We try to keep things light at home when possible by giving them enough room to make mistakes and test their limits but keep close enough to help and encourage when they need it. Only problem is that each time we think we have them figured out they go and change. It is a learning process for all of us.

How did Hurricane Katrina affect all of you, both professionally and in your personal lives?

Katrina, without question, was a reminder of just of fragile we are; how life can turn on a dime with very little warning. Its effects were truly devastating, but with destruction there comes new life and so it was with us personally and the Movers professionally.

Katrina destroyed three Mover homes and most (if not all) possessions. Keep in mind, most of this water stayed around for days. Sadly enough, photographs, videos of a child’s birth – you name it – met a watery and moldy grave. Actually, it went further than that – it destroyed the neighborhood. The places you went to have coffee, groceries, the church you attended or the school you dropped your kids off were gone. In the blink of a wink, everything you saw for miles became ghost-like. The Mover office was also trashed. Countless CDs, coloring books, musical instruments were ruined.

And guess what? The Movers didn’t have insurance. We had liability insurance, but we were so small and mom-and-pop-ish that we hadn’t needed more insurance – or so we thought. Luckily, Smitty lived on the West Bank, so although his home experienced minor wind damage, it escaped the destruction. The material things naturally hold memories, but not life and our thoughts focused on the well being of him and others like him soon after Katrina hit. Right after the disaster, everyone was reeling from the new reality we were forced into, and for all intent and purpose had not processed the extent to which our lives would change, but we knew at the very least we did have the Movers.

In particular, the Movers had two shows booked in Texas, one in Dallas on the Labor Day weekend and another in Plano. With the exception of Smitty (who was knee deep in search and rescue), we all rallied and went to Texas to fulfill our obligation. Quite honestly, no one knew about their jobs or future income or anything. All we could see in front of us was a small payday and so we went with literally the clothes on our back. We had no instruments, no Mover suits – nothing, but we went. And we played.

I read that you once said life as a parent is like navigating a foreign country, along with all of the cultural and linguistic differences it brings. Does it get easier? My daughter speaks caveman pretty exclusively, so I’ve gotten pretty fluent in grunt and point.

It’s like everything – there are ebbs and flows. One day you feel you’re on top of things and the next, your kids throw you for a loop.

How has fatherhood changed you? What unexpected surprises did it bring to the proverbial changing table?

You always hear that when you have kids your life changes. While that part is certainly true, you don’t realize that every minute of every day changes. Your entire daily routine is now centered around what is best for your kids…and there are surprises around every corner for sure.

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